Nuovo on Plato: The Culture of the City
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of essays or reflections about “The Republic,” a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
By culture, I mean the knowledge and skills that a person must acquire to be a good citizen and more particularly a leader, all of which make up the course of education that a civil society provides in its schools, but in other ways as well. In the Republic, Socrates sums it up under two headings, music and gymnastics. The goal for everyone is a sound mind in a sound body.
Music includes much more than compositions of instrumental or vocal sounds that have certain melodic, rhythmic and expressive qualities; it includes also poetry, story and general discourse, for all languages have rhythmic turns and melodic qualities that serve to edify, uplift and, most importantly, express truth through a wide range of emotions and moods. Today, perhaps more than ever, the beats and rhythms of music seem to be sounding in everyone’s ears and perhaps shaping their souls as they go about their daily business.
The concern here is with education, and most especially the education of children. The truth is to be told to them in a form that is able to take root in their souls, in a manner that both charms and edifies. What sort of truth? Moral truth, not about what is, but of what ought to be, for the stories we tell children from earliest childhood are fables, not historical or factual narratives. Moral truth, even when we are certain of it, is not easily located in reality. But fables, like those of Aesop, enter the mind, capture the imagination and teach moral or practical truths that seem self-evident. Finding reasons for them occurs at a higher stage of education, but first things first.
In reading Plato one cannot fail to be struck by the importance that he attached to primary education, beginning in the nursery, and what is, for us, pre-school, kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school. If he were speaking today, he would say this is where money and the greatest talent should go, and we might throw in also a school for young parents in Platonic music and also children’s libraries, for if we fail our children at these earliest stages, we handicap them for all that follows. This seems right.
Plato, and most likely Socrates, who speaks for him, also suggests that the work of storytellers and poets must be censored, especially those, like Homer and Hesiod, who tell stories about the Gods committing heinous crimes, for example, how Cronus castrated his father, Ouranus, at the instigation of his mother, Gaia, and assumed his place as chief God, only to be assaulted and overthrown by Zeus.
These tales and others like them of violence and war among the Gods are veritable lies and must not be told to young children, but “buried in silence.” This was a bold suggestion, for these poets, especially Homer, were regarded as inspired by the Greeks, and their writings, a sort of sacred scripture. It is tantamount to censoring the Bible.
In place of this, Plato substituted a prosaic, but surely enlightened, rational theology. God is wholly good and can cause no harm. Hence God is not the cause of everything, not the creator of the world out of nothing. Plato supposed that not only the Gods, but the physical universe and the stuff out of which it was made, were eternal and required only an intelligent fashioner.
He believed that evil has no real cause. Secondly, the Gods are unchanging, because they are perfect, so that any change that they might undergo would make them less than perfect, which is impossible. Finally, the Gods are neither deceived nor can they deceive, for the Gods, having existed from eternity, know all things, and therefore, unlike us, when considering the past, have no need to resort to telling noble lies. We humans, being limited in so many ways, and ignorant of so many things must resort to fables. Unfortunately, Plato provides no examples of the sort of purified fables that we might tell our children. But the point is made.
One may ask, “Did Plato believe in God, or did he suppose merely that belief in God is a useful fiction for civil society?” There is no sure answer to this question, because Plato kept his personal beliefs to himself. Of this at least we can be sure: Plato was no dogmatist. His manner of writing is sufficient proof of that. His purpose was to provoke thoughtful consideration of important issues, to free the mind from the superstitious fear that the Gods might do us harm here or hereafter, and to promote rationality and not faith.
Gymnastics, the other part of primary education, is about training the body so that it is fit, healthy and strong. Diet, as well as exercise, must be carefully planned to achieve these aims. Overall, like his model city, the course of training he prescribes is Spartan. Yet, like all the Greeks, Plato admired the human body, and just as he prescribed the cultivation of the musical attributes of language, with melodic turns and a variation of cadences, so the body must be trained to move with all the gracefulness and spontaneity of a dancer. He suggests in all this that physical strength and graceful movement are physical conditions of courage.
The program of music and gymnastics that is proposed in the Republic is meant primarily for the guardians and auxiliaries. It is meant to make them fit to rule and protect the city. Moreover, because all their needs would be provided by the city, they were not to be allowed to acquire any private wealth. Nor were they to marry and have a family. Nor were they to have any other interest that might distract them from their vocation in life, to protect and defend the city.
In this way, it was supposed they would be incorruptible. But Socrates’ friends have doubts. The city belongs to them, yet they cannot enjoy it. They are like hired mercenaries, there to guard the city but not free to do anything else.
Socrates responds that his concern is not with the happiness of any particular group in the city, but with the happiness of the city, by which he means, the absence of corruption, dysfunction and destabilizing change. And that is achieved when every member of society knows their station in life and pursues their proper function. Such a city is well situated for resources and safety, modest in size, and without any motive but to live together in peace.
Beside, he thinks his friends are mistaken. Guardians find happiness in being lovers of wisdom, which is part of being just. We shall see how this works out in the next act.